In Retrospect

An extraordinary show of will

A month after Cyclone Amphan cut a swathe through West Bengal, the State is already well on its way to recovery with coordinated efforts of unprecedented effort paving the way to normalcy

On May 20, a Wednesday, Cyclone Amphan hit Bengal, affecting 16 districts of which Kolkata, South and North 24-Parganas, Howrah, Hooghly and East Midnapore were worst hit. The damage caused by Amphan was estimated at a staggering Rs 1 lakh crore. More than one lakh mud houses in coastal areas were either badly damaged or razed to the ground.

The timing of the disaster, coming at a time when a pandemic was already taxing the Bengal Government, was inopportune. It is because of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's prudence, patience and administrative capacity that the affected areas have been able to resume life with a semblance of normality within a month after the disaster. The national media did not accurately portray the true extent of the damage. PM Modi, after conducting an aerial survey announced Rs 1,000 crore as the aid given for restoration work.

Now, a month after the disaster, it is time to briefly assess the reconstruction process and how it was made possible.

Kolkata has not experienced a cyclone of this magnitude, with wind speeds varying between 134 km/h to 140 km/h since 1737 when around 30,000 mud and brick houses were razed to the ground and the famous Navaratna temple of Govindaram Mitra was badly damaged.

When the denizens of Kolkata woke up on May 21, the destructive signs of the cyclone's passing were everywhere. The streets were waterlogged. More than 12,500 trees had been uprooted along with hundreds of lampposts, blocking the movement of traffic on important thoroughfares. Electrical and cable connections were cut-off in many areas.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was at Nabanna during the cyclone, closely monitoring the situation. The people had already been evacuated from the coastal areas of East Midnapore and South and North 24-Parganas. She had stayed back at the office along with the senior officials including Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha and Home Secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay. Firhad Hakim, Chairman, Board of Administrators was there at the control room of Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) to chalk out the plans of restoration.

By March 21, noon, the KMC workers were able to cut the tree branches that had blocked important thoroughfares like Ballygunge Circular Road, Sarat Bose Road, Amherst Street and Shakespeare Sarani among others. To clear the accumulated water from the roads, the civic authorities operated the drainage pumps and by evening, the accumulated water was cleared from most of the roads. However, water clogging remained an issue on the lanes and by-lanes and low lying pockets. The civic authorities cancelled the leaves of the workers and the officials of the Conservancy, Solid Waste Management and Building departments. Along with the KMC, the Public Works Department alongside the Irrigation and Waterways Department joined hands to expedite the restoration work.

On May 23, the Army, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) were called to assist the civic authorities. Fire brigades from Odisha also came to assist the Bengal government.

From May 25, traffic movement reached normal flow on all the important thoroughfares. The problem that remained was to clear the tree trunks that had blocked the lanes and by-lanes. The KMC officials reported that 12,500 trees were uprooted with 9,000 uprooted from the main roads and 3,000 on side lanes. Mamata Banerjee instructed all the ward coordinators to assist the workers to remove the tree trunks that had blocked the roads. Work was carried out on a war footing with utmost professionalism and efficiency. The work began at 10 am and continued till 6 pm. Heavy-duty payloaders and power cutters were deployed to cut the branches and move them to a designated dumping ground.

The restoration of electrical and cable connections was another major issue that had to be addressed with urgency. Mamata Banerjee urged the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation to restore power and later went to its office to meet the senior officials and ensure that power was restored. Within five days, that is, by May 25, power was restored in every nook and corner. Restoration of the cable network along with internet and mobile services took longer as the wires had been snapped by uprooted trees and lamp posts. Firhad Hakim held meetings with the cable operators and within seven days, services had been restored to most of the areas.

Moving on to restoration of the lost tree cover, the KMC along with the state Forest and Environment departments chalked out comprehensive plans on the variety of tree saplings that will be planted on the city roads. The uprooting of over 12,500 trees is largely due to the faulty planning of the erstwhile Left Front Government. From 1990, the civic authorities along with other government department planted trees haphazardly on Kolkata's roads. The presence of underground utility service cables in the same location meant that the roots of the planted trees cannot go deep and hold the trees firmly. To prevent a repeat of such negligence, comprehensive planning has been done in regards to the planting and transplantation efforts.

The most challenging job by far was to restore power in the farthest areas of Hasnabad and Hingolgunj areas of North 24-Parganas, very close to Indo-Bangla border. The workers of West Bengal State Electricity Development Corporation Limited (WBSEDCL) toiled hard, braving chest-deep water to erect the electrical poles. Lakhs of poles had been uprooted and the power department has placed orders to replace them.

On the humanitarian side, providing food to those affected was a major but essential challenge to overcome. Ramakrishna Mission and Bharat Sevasram Sangha stepped up in this time of need and provided cooked food along with rations to the cyclone victims. Ramakrishna

Mission has also started rehabilitation work at Mansadeep, one of the worst-hit areas. Within a couple of days, the State Government announced a relief grant of Rs 20,000 to those whose houses had been damaged or razed to the ground and the money was promptly transferred to respective accounts of those affected.

A retired IAS officer who has kept a close watch on the restoration work being carried out by the State Government commented, "The way the restoration work has been carried out makes for a far more thrilling spectacle than any cinema. The restoration of Kolkata was largely achieved within seven days and this does not happen in any cyclone hit city, anywhere in the world."

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